gordon freeman

To Speak or Not To Speak: Voiced vs. Silent Protagonists

There’s a certain level of immersion inherent in gaming. We get to see other worlds, have powerful abilities, battle enemies, and make discoveries, all from the comfort of our couch.

And of course, there isn’t a game where players don’t take control of some kind of character, be they good or evil, human or otherwise. It’s that character that represents our entry into the game’s world.

Player-character relationships are a funny thing. We can be along for the ride, directing them as we witness their story, or we can be them, living the events in real time. And ultimately, this is determined by characters who fall in one of two categories: voiced and silent.

What do I mean, you say?

Silent protagonists have a uniquely immersive hook. Because they don’t speak and have no predetermined personality, we view ourselves as them, entering into their mind and experiencing firsthand what they are going through. Our actions become their actions; our choices become their choices, and we essentially have been given a direct link to the game’s universe.

Think of  the Half-Life series for a moment. Considered some of the greatest shooters of all time, they did something extraordinarily well that no other shooter of the time had mastered on the same level: storytelling. In the games, you took on the role of Dr. Gordon Freeman as he made his way through a nightmarish world full of Combine and zombies. While practically every game on the market has a story, and about a million stories like this have already been told, the brilliance in Half-Life’s story was not what it told, but how it told it. There were no cutscenes. There weren’t even dialogue options. But Dr. Freeman is a silent protagonist, allowing you to fill in his space and become him, essentially breathing life into his character and assuming his role.

Other games such as Skyrim and Fallout allow you to do something similar, adding the ability of customization that allowed players to not only become a part of the world in a firsthand way, but also add their own bit of personality to it.

Voiced characters are a whole different animal. With voiced characters, we are able to explore the lore and substance of a predetermined character. When they have a voice of their own, they also have their own personality, history, talents, etc. They are a completely different person we are watching in a bird’s-eye view, witnessing their story unfold much like we do with characters in fiction novels.

Take John Marston from Red Dead Redemption for example. We watch his story unfold through both the dialogue and cutscenes he’s involved in, learning about where he came from and why he is the way he is today. Playing as him becomes our link to the game’s world, allowing us to guide his character toward the next objective through gameplay. While this is a completely different storytelling mechanic from the silent protagonists, it should be noted that it isn’t any less immersive. By having a voiced, concrete character, we actually are spared the trouble of building them into someone that can handle the conflict that arises before us throughout the plot. We learn to accept them for who they are and work alongside them to see the story to its end.

So next time you pick up a game, consider which of the two your character is, and pay attention to how you feel about and interact with the world as you’re playing. What you discover might just be surprising.

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